Heather in Antiquity (Ancient Sources)

This is another in our series of ancient adjuncts: HEATHER. Heather (Calluna vulgraris) is of the Ericacea family of plants, a family name derived from the ancient word for heather – erica. Today, we collect several ancient sources that mention heather to demonstrate the plant’s use in ancient Greece and Rome.

Aeschylus, Agamemnon ll. 294-295

οἱ δ᾽ ἀντέλαμψαν καὶ παρήγγειλαν πρόσω γραίας ἐρείκης θωμὸν ἅψαντες πυρί.

Those men lit up the heap of dried heather with fire and sent forward the message.

Theocritus, Idyll 5.63-65

οὐδὲν ἐγὼ τήνω ποτιδεύομαι: ἀλλὰ τὸν ἄνδρα, αἰ λῇς, τὸν δρυτόμον βωστρήσομες, ὃς τὰς ἐρείκας τήνας τὰς παρὰ τὶν ξυλοχίζεται: ἔστι δὲ Μόρσων.

I do not need him: but, if you want, we shall call on the man – the woodcutter – who cuts the heather near you. It is Morson.

Pliny the Elder, Natural History 24.36(39;64)

Ericen Graeci vocant fruticem non multum a vitice differentem, colore roris marini et paene folio. hoc adversari serpentibus tradunt.

The Greeks call the herb, heather, which is not much different from myrica; it is in the color of and [has] nearly the leaf of rosemary. They use this to repel serpents. 

Pliny the Elder, Natural History 11.15 (41-43)

Tertium genus mellis minime probatum silvestre, quod ericaceum vocant. convehitur post primos autumni imbres, cum erice sola floret in silvis, ob id harenoso simile. gignit id maxime arcturi exortus ex a. d. pr. id. Septembres. quidam aestivam mellationem ad arcturi exortum proferunt, quoniam ad aequinoctium autumni ab eo supersint dies XIIII, et ab aequinoctio ad vergiliarum occasum diebus XXXXVIII plurima sit erice. Athenienses eam tetralicen appellant, Euboea sisyrum, putantque apibus esse gratissimam, fortassis quia tunc nulla alia sit copia.

A third type of honey, the held least of all is the woodsy honey, which they call “ericaceum” [i.e. heather-y]. It is collected after the first rains of Autumn, when the heather alone blooms in the forests, on account of this it is similar to sand. It is borne mostly with the rising of Arcturus before the Ides of September [Sept. 13]. Some carry the summer honey at the rising of Arcturus, since 14 days remains from then to the equinox of Autumn, and from the equinox to the setting of Vergiliae there are 48 days with much heather. The Athenians call [heather] tetralix. In Euboea, they call it sisyrum and think that it is most pleasurable to bees – perhaps since there is nothing else in abundance.

Pliny the Elder, Natural History 13.32(35)

In Asia et Graecia nascuntur frutices epicactis, quem alii embolinen vocant, parvis foliis, quae pota contra venena prosunt sicut erices contra serpentes.

In Asia and Greece are born the plants, epicactis, which some call “emboline,” that have small leaves and produce a drink against poison, just as heather works against serpents.

Dioscorides, De Materia Medica 1.98(88, 117, 118)

Erica is a shrubby tree like myrica (but a great
deal smaller) the flowers of which the bees use, but
they make honey with it that is not good. The leaves and
flowers applied as a poultice heal snakebites.*

There are certainly more ancient references to heather in Greek and Latin than its adjunct-y friend, meadowsweet. Prior to the first c. BCE, the authors only describe heather as a plant that is worth cutting and lighting on fire. Later, Pliny likens heather to myrica – the name for the family of plants that includes another famous gruit herb, bog myrtle. Pliny also mentions a type of honey – of lower quality – that is made with the honey of heather. The season for this honey is around September

Heather is noted by Pliny the Elder and Dioscorides to possess the ability to repel serpents and their venom. This reminds the reader of a similar function for konuza (insect/serpent repellent). BCS readers may also remember that konuza is mentioned by Hecataeus as a certain additive to the Paeonian beer, parabias.

Image Source
Wikimedia Commons. Rosendahl , Public Domain


Source Notes
*Open-access attribution: “In 1655 John Goodyer made an English translation from a manuscript copy, and in 1933 Robert T Gunther edited this, Hafner Publishing Co, London & New York, printing it. This was probably not corrected against the Greek, and this version of Goodyer’s Dioscorides makes no such attempt either ”



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